By Frank Blechman
Like most folks, I value order more than I value freedom, at least in the abstract. Maybe Kris Kristofferson was right when he wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe I am too attached to my stuff to revel in anarchy. I prefer to think that “freedom” is not synonymous with “anarchy,” but I know that it is often hard to tell the difference.
Peter Fonda famously noted in the Ballad of the Easy Rider, “People talk about how they love ‘individual freedom,’ but they are scared to death of a ‘free individual.’ This is tricky business.
In any case, I am no fan of vandalism and wanton destruction of property, public or private. I am not a fan of destruction in general, as a strategy for change. It seems disrespectful at the least. If we want others to treat us with respect, we have to treat them that way. We may disagree, but we don’t have to be disagreeable.
So, with this frame of mind, I have watched with somewhat mixed feelings as demonstrators painted graffiti on monuments, pulled down statues, and set them on fire. It seemed often mindless and sometimes misdirected. The spontaneous art often wasn’t as good aesthetically as what it replaced.
Once demonstrators made clear that they would take direct action if officials would not, it got official attention and forced the conversation to a more active level. Even folks who wanted to preserve the monuments for whatever reasons had to recognize that the discussion is fundamentally about moral values, not just about one version of history versus another.
Yet, I am a fan of action. And in that frame of mind, I have to concede that we have been talking about taking down offensive statues and hateful symbols for years, but have done very little. Once demonstrators made clear that they would take direct action if officials would not, it got official attention and forced the conversation to a more active level. Even folks who wanted to preserve the monuments for whatever reasons had to recognize that the discussion is fundamentally about moral values, not just about one version of history versus another. Further, once a statue came down, very few argued, “Let’s put it back up.” The question moved from “How could we tell this story better?” (someday) to “What do we do now?” What is the story to tell?
I don’t think we will answer these questions quickly. I expect the debates will go on for years, at least. In the meantime, I propose that we replace the monuments with historical markers. Virginia has always been big on these. The markers can preserve the information that near here such and such happened, even if all that happened was that folks decided to put up a marker here.
In XXXX (year) a monument was built here to represent concerns at that time, and in XXXX (year) it was removed for the same reason.
We can remember the events without glorifying individuals (either those represented or those friends who raised the money for the prior monuments) or trying to explain the complexities of who they were, what they did, and when they did it. It happened. Here. Stop at that.
We do not need to condemn the past to recognize that certain parts do not serve us well today. We cannot refight those old battles. We have our own struggles with events now. Let’s recognize that some symbols no longer belong in the public square, even if we don’t know what does.